A nurse’s viral video urging people to “wash your stinkin’ hands” to prevent flu transmission may sound flip, but there’s a serious public health message embedded in this Facebook posting.
More than 5 million people have viewed Florida emergency room nurse Katherine Lockler’s video, where she gently chides people for failing to take simple precautions to avoid catching the flu.
She also not-so-gently scolds people who come to the ER for nonemergency reasons, as well as those who bring healthy kids to the hospital at the height of a deadly flu epidemic.
“If you have a team member from your softball team who is sick or injured, you do not bring the entire softball team in to check on them. Because guess what?” Lockler said. “You just got 15 new vectors, or carriers of the flu, by them all walking in … Please don’t bring [in] your healthy children, especially your newborn babies … If you don’t have what I call a true emergency, this would not be the time to come to the emergency room.”
Satesh Bidaisee, a professor of public health and preventive medicine and assistant dean for graduate studies at St. George’s University School of Medicine in the West Indies, said Lockler’s message, although unconventional, could help raise awareness of the steps people can take to prevent the flu.
“The traditional health education approaches advocating for sanitation and hygiene are not working, so maybe diffused unique modalities like this can draw interest and ultimately influence practice,” Bidaisee told Healthline.
A few days after the video debuted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a sobering report on the 2017 to 2018 flu season.
“In the past week, we have seen increased influenza-like illness activity, more hospitalizations, and tragically, more flu-associated deaths in children and adults,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting CDC director, said in a February 2 press briefing. “And as of this week, overall hospitalizations are now the highest we’ve seen.”
“We also continue to hear reports of crowded hospitals and spot shortages of antiviral medications and rapid influenza tests,” said Schuchat. “Unfortunately, our latest tracking data indicate that the flu activity is still high and widespread across most of the nation and increasing overall.”
Here are what health experts consider to be some of the best ways to avoid getting the flu.
Wash your hands
Frequent handwashing is the single most important preventative measure for preventing flu transmission, health experts say.
“Wash your hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing,” the American Red Cross advises.
The CDC recommends washing your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable.
Also, don’t touch your face after touching surfaces or coming into contact with other people who might be carrying the flu virus. As Lockler said, the only way the flu gets into your body is via the nose, mouth, or eyes.
Americans seem to be getting this message.
A new survey by the Bradley Corporation found that 61 percent of respondents say they are washing their hands more frequently to avoid getting germs or passing them on to others.
Get a flu shot
Getting a flu vaccine is especially critical for at-risk populations such as young children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions, healthcare workers, and people over age 65.
Neha Nanda, a hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), told Healthline that rapid mutation of this season’s dominant H3N2 flu virus has limited the effectiveness of the flu vaccine.
However, experts say the shot is still worth the effort.
“Although the vaccine has been only about 30 percent effective, it is still the best line of defense that is available,” Tami Prince, a physician at the Women's Health and Wellness Center in Hinesville, Georgia, told Healthline.
Stay away from the sick
Avoiding contact with people who have the flu is another good way to avoid the virus.
As Lockler noted, that includes steering clear of places full of sick people, such as hospitals. She called these medical facilities “a cesspool of funky flu right now.”
Kristine Arthur, an internist at MemorialCare Health System Orange Coast Medical Center in California notes the flu travels easily.
“We are usually at the highest risk of getting a virus from a family member or coworker because we are frequently in close proximity to them,” she told Healthline. “Viruses can spread fairly easily (in the air) for about six feet. If you work in cubicles or have a close teammate, that can be a regular occurrence, and family members are usually even closer than that.”
Covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze is a good way to avoid spreading the flu.
Sneezing into your hands isn’t ideal because it covers your fingers and palm with infectious germs.
Instead, says Lockler, try the “magic trick” of sneezing into your elbow.
If you sneeze into a tissue, throw it away immediately after use, the American Red Cross advises.
Be a ‘clean freak’
Frequently cleaning and disinfecting surfaces where the flu virus can live can also stymie the virus.
“Frequently wipe down common-area surfaces, like countertops, sinks, remotes, and light switches,” said Dena Nader, regional medical director at Med Express Urgent Care. “Try to disinfect your cell phone daily. Your cell phone travels everywhere with you — and it also spends a lot of time near your face. Also, think about ways to minimize your exposure to germs in public, like having your own pen handy for visits to the bank or grocery store. And, to avoid having to touch public water fountains, keep a case of bottled water in your backseat.”
Boost the immune
Make sure your immune system is healthy enough to fight off the flu.
“Get adequate sleep, engage in healthy outlets for stress, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and take time to exercise,” advised LeeAnne Denny, director of the Interprofessional Education Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and a family physician at Banner University Medical Center Phoenix.
If you get sick
Flu symptoms include fever, body aches, headache, and fatigue.
If you think you’re coming down with the flu, don’t go to work or go out in public. You’ll spread the disease. Get to a doctor as soon as possible.
A 2017 CityMD survey found that 61 percent of Americans said they went out while they had the flu or flu-like symptoms. This included 39 percent who said they went to work.
“As far as work — don’t go,” said Nader. “That is the best thing you can do for everyone, and what we all wish people would do. If this is absolutely impossible, wear a mask and be considerate. Yes, people may stare at you when they see you are wearing one, but when they find out you are just trying to protect them, it will be greatly appreciated.”
Regardless of the source — viral video or otherwise — these tips can literally save your life.
“Since the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the media has become more attuned to the danger of infectious diseases, and the attention this year’s flu season is getting is welcome as it will hopefully prompt the general public to take this infection — which kills thousands of Americans annually — more seriously,” Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Healthline.